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The Tasteless Competition

The difficulty of subjective judgement

By Ian VincePublished 2 months ago 4 min read
The Tasteless Competition
Photo by Aedrian Salazar on Unsplash

It was a proud day that I weaponised my Olympian skills in procrastination and earned myself a Vocal prize last year - in the Dancing with Distraction challenge, naturally.

I’ve also had the honour of receiving a couple of community top story awards, before and since the Distraction challenge. All in all, I count myself lucky to get the bonuses, even though there’s one thing, fellow Vocalista, that grates a little - how do I announce it to my family?

It’s an honour, alright, but does ‘You have won second place in a writing competition, receive $20’ seem a little bit, well, Monopoly? Not the money itself, just the phrase. I’m sure I’ve read it on a pink Community Chest card at some point.

It’s no beauty contest, right?

Which brings me to the subject in hand, the amazing breadth of competition entries to a single, simple prompt. How in heck do the judges ever decide what wins and what withers? What flies and what flops? Writing is a broader church than even the almost encyclopaedic range of Vocal communities would suggest. To go back to our game of Monopoly, what properties are we looking for when the span symbolised by Old Kent Road to Mayfair would seem to cover almost every quality there is? On the Monopoly board, it is ranked in quids, bucks, dinero, greenbacks and mazuma and there’s your objectivity. How is art compared away from the auction houses and galleries of Bond Street and Whitechapel?


As far as Vocal goes, I suspect that technical filters are used first; those bits of the brief that stipulate word counts, formats, and subject matter. A sonnet is not a haiku, fiction isn't fact and an essay is not a limerick. Grammar and spelling surely count for something as well.

Such basic stipulations might whittle down the list to more manageable proportions, but you’re only putting off the inevitable. There would be a sizeable entry field left to judge, but once all the easy distinctions have been made it won’t be very long before the thorny, subjective issue of taste rears its (objectively) ugly head.

It’s an issue that affects the creative arts beyond prompt challenges. How does anyone judge a High School art qualification or a creative writing degree? I remember my own graduation and the books of bullet-pointed, objective criteria that assessors could pore over to measure my creative work. After years of answering briefs, course work is held against vague pedagogic criteria so that nobody feels obliged to say they do or don’t like something (oh, the horror).

By Jené Stephaniuk on Unsplash

To subvert the common expression: I don’t know much about art, but I do know what I like (isn't a satisfactory yardstick to assess how the matrix of initial aims and objectives have been met by the output). All creative endeavour gets tangled up in the materialist trap that demands objectivity in everything. It can't be measured without subjectivity. If there are hard-and-fast rules or binary, black-or-white single choices, they regulate nothing and choose plural grey.

It ain’t happening in the same way it almost never has. Pure creativity’s great strengths are in the abstract and spiritual, not the corporeal and material but, as Madonna would have it, “we are living in a material world”.

The art of measuring art

The entire foundation of the view that all creative art is frippery - an unnecessary ornament in an ever-more material world - is underpinned by its very subjectivity. It makes materialists uncomfortable to not be able to reduce something so potentially powerful to its component parts. In this sense, at least, almost everything about art defies understanding. There is no clockwork artist, no mechanical poet. A midi file of a great piano sonata can only contain the representation of a note and a velocity setting. It is only an encoding of events in their material reality, not the events themselves or what may be the greatest part of any performance - its effect on the observers. Objectivity demands the attendance of only one observer with a limited range of senses or sensors.

So how do we judge a piece of writing fairly and objectively while leaving room for matters of taste and other subjective considerations?

I've pressed a lot of pixels into service here on an argument that we shouldn't be scoring art but I also recognise that competitions unearth new voices and draw attention to unexpected points of view and unfamiliar perspectives.

It depends on the judges how they balance between objective and subjective factors. Each judge will - like the rest of us - measure the work before them, both subjectively and objectively, but I hope that they allow the work to influence them so that how they feel or think is the most important factor of all.

I have already embraced the inherent subjectivity of writing, while also recognising the value of constructive feedback and objective standards that can only help me grow as a writer. I know my craft and I know what I like, I’m just not sure I can yet call much of it art.


About the Creator

Ian Vince

Erstwhile non-fiction author, ghost & freelance writer for others, finally submitting work that floats my own boat, does my own thing. I'll deal with it if you can.

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